Yesterday, I came across an article (“Are you sleepwalking now?”) on the digital magazine Aeon that I could not help but respond to, because it seems to be such a patent example of someone misusing science to “prove” things well beyond science’s ken.
The article is here: https://aeon.co/essays/are-you-sleepwalking-now-what-we-know-about-mind-wandering. It is well written and certainly thought-provoking, so it’s potentially worth reading on its own. More to the point, it is required reading for this post.
To practice what I preach, here’s my fair disclosure at the beginning, in case this is the first of my posts that you’re reading. I’m a faithful progressive Christian who believes in both science and God. As an existentialist theologian and somewhat of an epistemological pessimist (I’d say “healthy skeptic,” I believe that personal consciousness and experience is the foundational starting place of examining metaphysical questions. Hence why I might take the article so personally, though I think that my arguments stand on their own and I’m explicitly trying to go out of my way (unlike Dr. Metzinger, I think) to admit to what I believe that cannot be proved and what does or does not actually meet with standards of scientific inquiry.
The article was posted on the 22nd of this year by Dr. Thomas Metzinger, a professor at the university of Mainz, where he teaches theoretical philosophy with a focus on the philosophy of the mind (the subject of his article). He has written numerous books, given a TED talk and is undoubtedly a highly-intelligent person well-versed in the subject matter.
Nevertheless, I have to take issue with the assertions he makes in his article.
The article begins with what I can only describe as a masterful metaphor for the movement of “thoughts and ideas” from un- or subconscious to conscious, one that equates them to the motion of dolphins traveling at speed, occasionally breaking the surface of the water and often under it.
From there, Metzinger poses the questions he believes he can answer. He writes, “Philosophers of mind often fall into the trap of assuming that goal-directed, rational thought is the paradigmatic case of conscious cognition. But if we are only ever partly aware of what is happening in our own minds, surely we can’t be in absolute command of our thoughts, let alone causing them? Is it ever possible to distinguish between mental actions, which we can direct and select, from the more general category of mental events, which simply happen to us? In what sense are we ever genuinely mental agents, capable of acting freely, as opposed to being buffeted by forces beyond our control?” (emphasis Metzinger’s).
This question perhaps the most fundamental philosophical question when it comes to thinking about the mind. Experientially, I think that we can agree that we have thoughts that we would assert we have consciously and willfully called to mind and formed and those thoughts that seem to be generated spontaneously and inexplicably—in other words, the conscious and the subconscious.
The only complaint that I have with Metzinger’s formulation of these questions is the rhetoric that subtly slips in to begin his arguments from the inception of the question. On the other hand, this is easily forgivable as something most, if not all, of us are likely to do even unintentionally.
The next paragraph begins Dr. Metzinger’s tenuous assertions. Relying on the “empirical findings” of neuroscience and experimental psychology in mind-wandering, he asserts that, “Much of the time we like to describe some foundation ‘self’ as the initiator or cause of our actions, but this is a pervasive myth” (again, emphasis is Dr. Metzinger’s).
Here’s my first complaint: there is no description of these “empirical findings.” Dr. Metzinger does not explain what experiments have been conducted, whether they are peer reviewed, whether they have been replicated, what the specific results are—or, really anything other than that they exist and we should allow him to interpret them for us. This is not evidence; this is the basic rhetorical technique of asking the audience to rely on your authority as evidence enough.
The first sentence of the following paragraph gets to the heart of the matter: “Mind-wandering research suggests that we need to get rid of naïve, black-and-white distinctions such as ‘free-will’ versus ‘determinism’, ‘conscious’ versus ‘unconscious’, and what philosopher’s call ‘personal’ versus ‘subpersonal’ processes (roughly, accounts of cognition that look at the whole person’s reasons and beliefs, versus those based on biological or physiological functions).” What!?! How did we go from “empirical findings” suggesting that there are a lot of subconscious activities going on to positing that we should look to a solely biological basis for consciousness? This is a logical non-sequitur in the extreme.
Nevertheless, the statement is revealing: it’s a 21st Century version of the “bag of chemicals” argument made in the early 20th Century (i.e., that all of our thoughts and actions are really the result of chemical reactions in body and brain without any real volition or self) so readily rebutted by G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy.
Rather than solely referring to Mr. Chesterton (whose arguments should most definitely be read), I’ll point out a few of the specific problems: (1) lack of any evidence for this provided; (2) lack of consideration of the broader findings of neurological research (which I’ll refer to in more detail in a moment); (3) the solipsism and circularity of the argument (how is it that Dr. Metzinger is so special as to realize the falsity of the illusion and then to explain it to others by random chance of his own mental events)?; (4) the complete and willful ignorance of the human experience. We might phrase the last objection in terms of Occam’s Razor: which is more likely, that when we feel we are exercising our will we are or that there are multiplicative, subtler and (so far) inexplicable mental processes going on that cause this illusion?
In the case of neurological research that seems to point to other than a solely materialistic explanation for cognition, I’d point you to Dr. Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul in counterargument. In that book, Dr. Beauregard (a neuroscientist rather than a philosopher) explains how in certain experiments regarding addiction relief, it has been shown that the active cognition of the mind can actually alter the material function of the brain over time by creating new neural pathways. The whole topic of “neuroplasticity,” which is showing us that our brains remain more subject to change in adulthood than we previously thought, seems to cut against Dr. Metzinger’s argument.
As a caveat, when Dr. Metzinger says we ought to get rid of “black-and-white distinctions,” I think he’s right in that we need more complex and nuanced ways to think about the topic of free will as some interaction between personal volition and influence (or perhaps deterministic) influences. But this is nothing new in the philosophy of the mind (or theology, for that matter) and I’ve myself argued for such a position in previous posts. But when Dr. Metzinger’s seemingly-suggested resolution is to ignore one half of the equation entirely, we’re stepping backward instead of forward.
The logic further falters as Dr. Metzinger continues, writing: “As the dolphin story hints, human beings are not Cartesian egos capable of complete self-determination.” I would remind you that the dolphin story is a metaphor, by itself it cannot logically hint at anything except the to extent that it can be shown that the metaphor validly represents the things it is trying to explain (though this article contains none of that).
There’s a glimmer of reason after this, though, where Dr. Metzinger says, “Nor are we primitive, robotic automata. Instead, our conscious inner life seems to be about the management of spontaneously emerging mental behavior. Most of what populates our awareness unfolds automatically, just like a heartbeat or autoimmune response, but it can still be guided to a greater or lesser degree.”
I’d like to point out in the above that Dr. Metzinger wisely uses the words “seems to be” to indicate that he is speculating here. The problem, though, is that despite these subtle hints about the actual logical foundation of his argument (being very slight), he presents most of his ideas as authoritative through the rest of the article’s language.
For sake of time and space, I’m going to skip a few paragraphs where Dr. Metzinger discusses the positive and negative effects of daydreaming. He continues, “My view is that the mind-wandering and the DMN [what he calls the default-mode network of the active parts of the brain during rest periods) basically serve to keep our sense of self stable and in good shape. Like an automatic maintenance program, they constantly generate new stories, weaving back and forth between different time-horizons, each micro-narrative contributing to the illusion that we are actually the same person over time” (this time, emphasis is mine).
Again, Dr. Metzinger begins with words of speculation (“My view is…”) but then makes assertions as if they are fact. He’s put the cart before the horse here by assuming that the idea of the self is an illusion rather than a reality. And he’s done that without any evidence whatsoever. It seems here, as I think has become fashionable for some intellectuals investigating the still relatively terra incognita of the mind, to assume a Buddhist sort of worldview and then force the science to fit that mold. But the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion is a religious and philosophical idea, not a scientific one. There is no defensible logic to starting with that assumption and working backwards. That’s simply not how science works.
The truth will out, as they say, and it certainly does in the next paragraph. Dr. Metzinger writes, “I should come clean at this point and confess that I don’t believe in any such entity or thing as ‘the self’” (emphasis mine). It’s a little late in the game here to make that confession—honest scholarship starts with a confession of biases that are known to the writer and probably unknown to the reader so that the reader can read critically. I think that this drives home the disingenuity on Metzinger burying the language of speculation with such extensive assertions of truth.
But it’s the assertion itself that is so ironic—who is making the confession if there is no self? The sentence, under Metzinger’s argument, is itself nonsense. And therein lies perhaps the biggest problem with the materialist approach to the mind—even the people who maintain that position cannot (and do not seem to try to) live as if it were true. The only way it is possible to interact with the world is through an understanding of self. That understanding may see itself as more or less connected to everything around it, but no one acts or thinks without reference to an “I.” If that “I” is an illusion, then there’s really no “I” to make the discovery that it is an illusion in the first place. Hence the circularity of this kind of logic.
To drive the weakness of Dr. Metzinger’s philosophy home, he then refers to “evolutionary psychology,” that perennial favorite of materialist thinkers like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. Evolutionary psychology is the field of making unfalsifiable assumptions about the development of the brain (and therefore mind) according to subjectively selected “societal needs” and then presenting those assumptions as fact. Dr. Metzinger joins in by arguing about the societal role of the “fiction” of the self, how “[h]umans have evolved to be a bit like method actors,” and asserting that “The self-as-agent is just a useful fiction, a neurocomputational artefact of our evolved self-model.”
This statement is unfalsifiable by scientific method because consciousness and self are, by their very nature, subjective. And yet, Metzinger presents his assumptions as the inevitable conclusions of science despite the fact that true scientific method (nor basic philosophical logic) would touch such a conclusion with a 10-foot pole. Further, Metzinger delicately (and probably quite deliberately) avoids issues like the “hard problem of consciousness” by simply denying that there is one.
In a further bout of spontaneous honesty, “But just as there is no ‘real’ character, there’s also no such thing as ‘a self’, and probably nothing like an immortal soul either.”
Metzinger is, for such an esteemed scholar, remarkably willing to conflate belief with fact and then to work backward from there.
I think it is sufficient to stop with a detailed rebuttal of Metzinger’s argument there, as the rest of the (lengthy) article simply repeats the same logical errors, rhetorical slight-of-hand and materialism as religious belief (in that it is the given from which all other inquiry begins) as science.
On the one hand, perhaps it is the arguments of the religious that have generated this kind of reactionary response. When we deny the usefulness of science because of religion (which, as I’ve often argued, we oughtn’t) it seems a natural (though not logical) response to use science to deny religion. And that’s really what these kinds of arguments are ultimately about (otherwise, why explicitly deny the existence of an immortal soul when the very argument makes such a distinction meaningless).
Frankly, I’m tired of it, on both sides. I’m tired of atheist materialists trying to claim philosophical and metaphysical truth through science and I’m tired of fundamentalist Christians denying evolution because the Bible doesn’t mention it.
To be clear, I have no problem with atheists saying that science leads them to believe in a solely materialist explanation for existence—they’re well within their right to draw that conclusion, even if I think it is the wrong one, just as some are led to faith because of their interpretation of metaphysical likelihoods based on science. Reasonable people may disagree, as we lawyers like to say. It’s when they claim that science proves their belief that I become offended as a person of deep faith who nevertheless is willing to make careful distinction between what science shows us (and often defers to science to inform theology) and what must be left to faith and belief.
At the same time, I’m upset both by the closemindedness and bad theology of those who question science based on Scripture that in no way asserts that that’s a proper (or even valid) way to analyze the world and the fact that, knowing I’m a Christian, many people with whom I’d like to have a real (and respectful) conversation about these kinds of topics will not listen logically because they somehow assume I’m that kind of Christian.
As I’ve said many times in the past, science is simply not equipped to answer metaphysical questions, which unfortunately must be relegated to the realm of belief, conviction, uncertainty and doubt. Let’s use science to examine and explore the material world, to learn what we can about all that we can. But let’s also admit when science is of no use and properly categorize those beliefs about the metaphysical as matters of faith, no matter who they come from, believer or not.